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Biblical Slavery - How Bad Was It Really? by Joanna M. Saidel

By: Joanna Saidel

Biblical Slavery - How Bad Was It Really?


As originally published in the Times of Israel, with permission of the author.


 "Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to  your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh." (1 Peter 2:18)


It seems that, in this day and age, biblical slavery,  in the context quoted above, has become a cause célèbre for rejecting the  civility and wisdom of the Bible. The topic has experienced a renaissance,  particularly in light of the recent Academy Award-winning British-American film,  12 Years a Slave.

Such scripture has been used as an excuse for many of  the past horrors of African slave trade, as well as to justify the human  trafficking of more recent days, both of which involved the kidnapping and sale  of human beings. In actuality, these actions bear little semblance to biblical  “slavery” which, in fact, generally referred to voluntary indentured servitude  resulting from lack of ability to make restitution for a criminal or civil  debt.

While not to be confused with the brutal slavery of  kingdoms such as ancient Egypt, biblical “slavery” laws of the Torah demanded  terms of agreement regarding duration and treatment. If these stipulations were  not met, or if bodily injury was incurred, the compensation for such an affront  was emancipation.

The book of Exodus laid out the ground rules. The  length of servitude was limited and required the restoration of one’s freedom at  the term’s end:

"If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall  serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing."

A certain degree of compassion was involved:

"If he came in by himself, he shall go out by himself:  if he were married, then his wife shall go out with him."

Although this consideration was qualified by certain  conditions, it allowed a nuclear slave family the opportunity to remain  together:

"If his master have given him a wife, and she have born  him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he  shall go out by himself. And if the servant shall plainly say, I love my master,  my wife, and my children; I will not go out free: Then his master shall bring  him unto the judges; he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post;  and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl (i.e. pierce his ear); and  he shall serve him for ever."

In the case of an “arranged marriage” of a female  slave to a master, if that master was displeased with her he could send her away  but was not at liberty to sell her into further bondage:

"And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant,  she shall not go out as the menservants do. If she please not her master, who  hath betrothed her to himself, then shall he let her be redeemed: to sell her  unto a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he hath dealt deceitfully  with her."

A maid servant, purchased as a wife for a master’s  son, was to be treated as a daughter:

 "And if he have betrothed her unto his son, he shall  deal with her after the manner of daughters."

Her upkeep was guaranteed in the event of a second  marriage. If this commitment was not upheld then the woman was to be freed:

"If he take him another [wife]; her food, her raiment,  and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish. And if he do not these  three unto her, then shall she go out free without money."

Perhaps most importantly, the kidnapping and sale of a  human being was a capital offense:

"And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he  be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death."

And in another reference:

"If a man is found stealing one of his brethren, the  people of Israel, and if he treats him as a slave or sells him, then that thief  shall die; so you shall purge the evil from the midst of you."

Corporal punishment, which damaged the person in  servitude, required compensation in the form of emancipation:

"And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye  of his maid, that it perish; he shall let him go free for his eye’s sake. And if he smite out his manservant’s tooth, or his maidservant’s tooth; he  shall let him go free for his tooth’s sake."

While transgressions inevitably occurred, the legal  basis of biblical “slavery” required justice, respect and kindness rather than  abuse. In the absence of modern day social services, servitude and multiple  marriage served the function of taking care of individuals who might otherwise  have been discarded and likely died in the hostile environments which they  inhabited.

Exodus 21-22 explains that servitude was often the  result of the inability to make reparations for a crime. For example, instead of  going to prison for committing theft, the criminal was required to make  restitution. If one was unable to do so then that individual was sold into  servitude:

 "He should make full restitution; if he have nothing,  then he shall be sold for his theft."

To a further degree, individual servitude was, at  times, superceded by national servitude. This was generally the result of  breaking spiritual laws. It is spoken of in reference to the carrying away of  the Jews to Babylon and can be seen in the case of Hebrew subservience to Egypt  which resulted in 430 years of bondage.

The book of Deuteronomy restates the commands of  Exodus regarding bondservants, specifically with regard to Hebrew slaves, but  also expounds upon the compassion a master should show toward his “slaves”:

"And if thy brother, an Hebrew man, or an Hebrew woman,  be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt  let him go free from thee. And when thou sendest him out free from thee, thou  shalt not let him go away empty: Thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy  flock, and out of thy floor, and out of thy winepress: of that wherewith the  Lord thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him. And thou shalt  remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God  redeemed thee: therefore I command thee this thing today. And it shall be, if he  say unto thee, I will not go away from thee; because he loveth thee and thine  house, because he is well with thee; Then thou shalt take an awl, and thrust it  through his ear unto the door, and he shall be thy servant for ever. And also  unto thy maidservant thou shalt do likewise. It shall not seem hard unto thee,  when thou sendest him away free from thee; for he hath been worth a double hired  servant to thee, in serving thee six years: and the LORD thy God shall bless  thee in all that thou doest."

Again, compassion was to prevail in the case of an  escaped slave who sought asylum:

"You shall not give up to his master a slave who has  escaped from his master to you; he shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the  place which he shall choose within one of your towns, where it pleases him best;  you shall not oppress him."

Foreign slaves who were circumcised could participate  in the Passover seder:

"And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “This is the  ordinance of the passover: no foreigner shall eat of it; but every slave that is  bought for money may eat of it after you have circumcised him."

It is worth noting that the Hebrew word for slave  (עבד) is also the word for servant. Moses uses this word to address the  Almighty, when he famously says, I am not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor  since thou hast spoken unto thy servant: but I am slow of speech, and of a slow  tongue. Most English versions of the Torah use the word “servant” rather  than “slave” throughout the translations of the biblical books.

Abraham’s servant would not be considered a slave in  the modern sense, yet the word used for him is the same. Here again, “servant”  would be more appropriate:

"So Abraham said to the oldest servant of his house,  who ruled over all that he had, “Please, put your hand under my thigh, and I  will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of the earth,  that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites,  among whom I dwell; but you shall go to my country and to my family, and take a  wife for my son Isaac."

Abraham put his full trust in this so-called  “slave”.

When Joseph’s brothers went down into Egypt during the  great famine, Joseph inquired about the health of his father. The brother  replied, Your servant our father is in good health; he is still  alive.

Over and over, similar examples occur in the biblical  text. Depending upon which text one uses, the term appears more than 400 times  from Genesis to Malachai – the majority of the time referring to servant status  and sometimes even with possible endearment; for example, God speaks of Moses my servant.

Despite this benevolent treatment, such was not the  case with regard to foreign slaves, only Hebrews. Leviticus 25 affirms that  foreign slaves were permanent possessions which could be passed on to one’s  progeny.

"Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt  have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy  bondmen and bondmaids. Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn  among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which  they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession. And ye shall take  them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them as a  possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever; but over your brethren the  children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with  rigour."

It should be remembered that this occurred during the  age of conquest, during the days when, after being redeemed from Egypt and  wandering through the wilderness, the Israelites were commanded by God to  vanquish and utterly destroy the heathen roundabout – particularly the  Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites  – peoples who were committing atrocities against the Almighty by throwing their  own children into the fire in worship of Molech, worshipping a variety of other  gods, practicing lewd behavior, etc. God’s ferocity was an action meant to  cleanse the land and establish a holy nation consecrated to Himself.

In certain cases, some of these enemies escaped  destruction through trickery, as was the case of the Hivites. A group of them  disguised themselves as exhausted foreigners who had come from a great  distance:

 "And they went to Joshua unto the camp at Gilgal, and  said unto him, and to the men of Israel, We be from a far country: now therefore  make a league with us. And the men of Israel said unto the Hivites, Peradventure  ye dwell among us; and how shall we make a league with you? And thy said unto  Joshua, We are thy servants. And Joshua said unto them, Who are ye? And from  whence come ye? And they said unto him, From a very far country thy servants are  come because of the name of the Lord thy God: for we have heard the fame of him,  and all that he did in Egypt."

An agreement was made between the Hivites and the  Israelites: and Joshua made peace with them, and made a league with them, to  let them live: and the princes of the congregation swore unto them. When  the treachery was revealed, Israel remained committed to the alliance which they  had sworn to before God and did not harm the Hivites. Nonetheless, they were  forced into servitude as payment for their deception:

"And Joshua called for them, and he spake unto them,  saying, Wherefore have ye beguiled us, saying, We are very far from you, when ye  dwell among us? Now therefore, ye are cursed, and there shall none of you be  freed from being bondmen, and hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house  of my God."

The Hivites admitted their deception and agreed to  serve Israel: And they answered Joshua, and said, Because it was  certainly told thy servants, how that the Lord thy God commanded his servant  Moses to give you all the land, and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land  from before you, therefore we were sore afraid of our lives because of you, and  have done this thing. And now, behold, we are in thine hand: as it seemeth good  and right unto thee to do unto us, do. As a result of this action, the  Hivites and their descendants remained in servitude to Israel in perpetuity.

Thus, it is evident that the reason for possessing  foreign slaves in this case was, surprisingly, honor. The Hittites were supposed  to be annihilated. Fearing Israel, they deceived Joshua and tricked him into a  treaty whereby they were able to submit themselves to endless bondage in  exchange for life. Joshua, determined to keep the oath he swore before God,  refrained from destroying this enemy.

Besides foreign slavery, there was also slavery  inflicted as a result of war, and servitude as punishment for inappropriate  personal behavior, as was the case against Canaan, the descendants of Ham,  regarding Ham’s disrespect toward father, Noah. As retribution for this affront,  God declared:

"Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be  unto his brethren. And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan  shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents  of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant."

This was a perpetual blanket curse against an entire  people, often translated as a curse against the nation of Africa itself. It may  be of interest to note that the Hivites were descendants of Ham.

Similarly, the Book of Numbers, chapter 31, has been  criticized as a text which shows the savagery of Israel, particularly regarding  the matter of slavery as the result of war, in this case against Midian. The  Israelites had a number of important historical connections to the Midianites:  the Midianites were descendants of Abraham through his wife, Keturah; Moses was  married to Zipporah, daughter of Jethro, the priest of Midian; the Midianites  sold Joseph into bondage in Egypt; Midian led Israel into idolotry and whoredom  which brought a plague upon Israel that consumed 24,000 souls. In the latter  case, God’s anger was stirred; and he commanded Moses to destroy Midian. Twelve  thousand Israelites prepared for war, attacked, and defeated Midian, taking  women, children, flocks and goods as spoil. Moses responded with anger that  these individuals, particularly the women, were spared, and insisted on the  destruction of all but the most innocent of this remainder. Moses’ decision  attempted to purge Israel which had been led astray by the Midianites into the  worship of foreign deities.

Though there may be seeming inconsistencies in the  treatment of slaves from one situation to another, a common thread weaves  through the fabric of the whole. That is, the effort to maintain righteousness  in Israel by serving God and upholding his commands.

There were many justifications for, and judgments  concerning, biblical slavery. The compassion and justice shown toward Hebrew  slaves seemingly contrasts with the unending servitude of foreign slaves,  prisoners of war, and the cursed generations descending from single individuals  like Ham. All of this leaves one with mixed emotions. Biblical slavery – How bad  was it really? There’s a lot to think about.


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